The thing that I love most about Mad Men is its sense of confidence. Even when the show is doing stuff I don’t really like, it moves with a quiet sense of self-possession. It’s certain that it’s the greatest damn show on television, and there’s nothing you could say that would dissuade it of what it’s doing. Mad Men is one of the most fun shows on TV to write criticism about because you’re totally aware at any given moment that Matt Weiner and his collaborators just don’t give a shit what you think. They’re going to make the show they want to make, and you’re free to think about it as you will. That confidence is both charming and occasionally over-powering.
But it can also result in episodes of television like “Signal 30,” which are transfixing and incredible, even as you can’t truly say anything major happens in them. This is a beautiful hour of television, full of powerful moments, but it’s also an hour that’s primarily about nothing more than men quietly contemplating their own unhappiness, even when they have everything in the world to be happy about. That’s not exactly the stuff of case-of-the-week drama, yet Mad Men succeeds because it makes the emotional realizations of the week as dramatic and fascinating as any other show might with bits that seem much higher stakes on the surface. Mad Men scoffs at those notions. “Don’t you think the state of your very soul is the highest stakes of all?” it asks. Then it lights 50 cigarettes.
The centerpiece of “Signal 30” is a long, mostly pleasant dinner party at the home of Pete and Trudy Campbell. The invitees are Ken and Cynthia Cosgrove and Don and Megan Draper. The subjects taken off the table for discussion include babies and work, and we’re reminded that Trudy’s a great hostess when she’s given the chance. (I loved the way she outmaneuvered Don when he tried to get out of attending the party. That was some Game Of Thrones-level political subterfuge right there, all carried off with an Alison Brie smile.) At dinner, Cynthia lets slip that Ken has had a science-fiction story published (something he earlier told Peggy about), and Ken explains the plot: It’s about a robot who runs maintenance on a bridge between two planets. He’s there to determine if the bolts are tight or not, and he removes and tightens the bolts at the behest of his overlords. One day, he’s asked to remove the bolts that will cause the bridge to crash and everyone on it to die. He does, and the catastrophe happens. Why does he do it? Don asks. Because he does what they tell him to do.
There are, of course, plenty of resonances in this fairly classic science-fiction setup with all of the other characters in the scene. But what it got me thinking about was how the show continues to play with the rich histories that have grown up among all of these people. Megan’s the new girl at this table, but the relationships among the men, especially, are like that shaky bridge the robot could pluck apart at any time. Pete and Ken have always been linked in some ways—remember the competition launched between the two?—and the show primarily deals with how Ken deals with a dressing-down by putting on the face of doing the thing he was asked to do and going right back to his writing, while Pete continues to crave the respect he’s technically earned that no one wants to give to him because… he’s Pete Campbell. At the same time, there’s a link between Don and Pete, who wanted to be so much like Don in the past, or even Pete and Trudy, whose marriage is put in real peril by Pete’s actions throughout the episode.
Pete wanted to be Don at one time, and it’s interesting to see that he’s, essentially, become the man. He lives in the suburbs with a wife and oldest daughter (with more kids presumably on the way). He’s got the life other men might dream of, but he’s almost punishingly unhappy. He wants more, and when the prostitute he takes up with (on a night out to lure a new client to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) plays at a variety of “types” she could pretend to be for him, it’s the woman who just wants to service her king that really gets him going. Pete Campbell grew up a part of a family that squandered what wealth and power it had—there’s another reminder of this when he mentions the section of the botanical gardens his family donated ages ago to the teenage girl he hits on—but those days are long faded. He’s a man born to wear a crown who has no crown that will fit him, at least in his own mind. Old money doesn’t count for much, but neither does a good work ethic, especially when it comes with the odiousness of being attached to someone as desperate for respect as Pete Campbell.
That’s the thing about that confidence: It’s just something you have. If you walk into the room and act like you belong there, nine times out of 10, people will just assume you do. This seems to be one of the major operating principles of being Don Draper, and it’s why he’s as at home backstage at a Rolling Stones concert as he is at a high-class brothel. Pete just doesn’t possess that, and he probably never will. The world rewards talent and hard work, yes, but being respected and even liked is something far more intangible. It involves all sorts of things that can’t be taught or even really earned. It just involves attitudes and modes of behavior. Pete Campbell will never be Don Draper. He can’t even properly fix his faucet, so much as he can fake his way through it, doing something that seems like it works, until it simply doesn’t at the worst possible moment.
“Signal 30” is also notable for containing the sly courtship of the head of Jaguar by one Lane Pryce, who runs into him at a pub, where an assortment of British expatriates have gathered to watch the World Cup finals. (England wins, and that win and the mentions of Charles Whitman—yet another serial killer—pin down this episode as taking place at the end of July and beginning of August. Time has slowed just a bit, as it will in a long, hot summer.) Lane gets advice for pursuing the account from Roger Sterling, who tells him to wait just long enough to get a tidbit of personal information from the potential client, then run with it. And if that doesn’t work, Lane should let something slip himself. (The episode cleverly doesn’t show us what happens when Lane launches into his tale of how Rebecca just doesn’t like New York, which I imagine to be pretty horrifying.) This works well enough that Lane gets another dinner with the man, but Roger, Don, and Pete decide to do the talking at this meeting—which brings them to that brothel.
It’s here that the Pete and Lane plots intersect, as the fallout from the brothel visit involves the man’s wife finding out—thanks to “chewing gum on his pubis,” which is something that will always be funny when said with a British accent. The other guys in the meeting laugh it off. Lane, who was hoping to have found a new friend, simply cannot. Pete takes things a step too far, as he always does, and we’re in the midst of a fistfight between the two. Pete gets in his licks, but Lane ends up the champ, though it’s doubtful he takes much solace in it. Later, he gives Joan a surprisingly deep kiss, which she backs out of as gracefully as possible, opening the door, so that what was supposed to be a private meeting becomes semi-public. Lane longs to build bridges with nearly everybody around him, but there’s simply no real place for him to go. Joan mostly pulls off what was meant to be his job, he’s not an accounts man, and he can’t even manage to make a new friend. There’s a central loneliness to the struggles of both Pete and Lane, a way that either would like to be any of the other men in the office, even though they have too much self-doubt to ever pull it off. And yet they’ll never recognize each other as roughly kindred spirits because both men carry around a healthy amount of self-hatred. (Pete would never classify it as such, but what else do you think he thinks about late at night?)
I’ve described Mad Men as a collection of short stories that add up to a greater whole before, and that’s one of my other favorite things about it. (I honestly think television would be better if more shows adopted this model.) “Signal 30” makes that structure essentially explicit, by opening and closing with that sound of the dripping faucet, the very best sort of Mad Men symbol. On the one hand, it symbolizes exactly what Ken Cosgrove talks about as he writes his new story (carried out in voiceover over the episode’s close)—the quietude of the country and the idea that Pete has traded something vital away by settling down, something that he’s only now realizing he’s lost. (Don knows what this feels like, and the most Don Draper-y moment of the episode is when he cautions Pete not to throw away a great marriage because he feels trapped.) But it also represents all of those things Pete wants to be and never will. The teenage girl’s sandal waggling matches time with the steady drip, and he realizes he’s not going to be the handsome guy she takes up with. He tries to fix it and fails, and he realizes he’s not going to be the confident, self-assured Don Draper either. There’s nothing Pete Campbell wants more than to not be Pete Campbell.
But I think there’s also something in the way the scene transitions from the sandal to the dripping, or the other dissolves and wipes that mark the episode’s editing. Mad Men is a series about the passage of time, and I liked the way this episode suggested the way that time passes, so that it almost seems as if you’ve lost yourself in the mists of your own life. One of my favorite writers, Richard Yates (whose work informs this series quite a bit), uses a technique of skipping across whole weeks or years between paragraphs, as though nothing important happened in them, and that underlines just how little the dramas of our day-to-day lives really matter. Think back five years to what you were doing roughly around this time. Do you remember everything in minute detail? Or do you just remember your rough circumstances at the time, your home and family and job? In most cases, it’s the latter.
Time does that. It slips away, just as it’s slipped away from Pete. He lies in bed at night, with everything he ever wanted, and it’s still not enough, because what he’s chasing will always recede further and further from him, lost in the wreckage of the past. All of the people he longs to be are simply not within reach, be they king or jock or Don Draper. He’s the little, slightly weaselly guy who makes the world run, and he won’t even have the satisfaction that Ken Cosgrove gets from writing his short stories. (Remember how Pete was the one who wanted to write stories, too, back in season one?) The characters on Mad Men have been striving for contentment for so long that it seems a little startling to see that, say, Don seems to have finally achieved it, at least for a little while. Yet Pete Campbell will never get there. It’s who he is, a man chasing after ghosts that evaporate just as he reaches them, never realizing that what he always wanted tastes so much like ashes because he didn’t know what he wanted in the first place.
- John Slattery directed tonight’s episode from a script by Frank Pierson (screenwriter of Dog Day Afternoon and Cool Hand Luke!) and Matt Weiner. Needless to say, all three gentlemen acquit themselves well, and this is season five’s first instant classic (to my mind). Then again, I think season two’s “Flight 1,” another Pete Campbell-centric episode, is one of the series’ best as well, so don’t mind me.
- It’s really nice to have Joan back in the office, and she must have somehow been back to work long enough that it was no longer something people were commenting on, which means she went back fairly quickly after the end of “Mystery Date” (which took place in mid-July).
- Further Pete-doesn’t-want-what-he-says-he-wants fodder: He complains about Trudy often this season, yet at the party, she seems like the most awesome wife and mother ever. Plus, his baby is adorable. Even Don Draper beams!
- There’s only a little Peggy in this episode, but I liked that it set up that she and Ken still have an agreement to help each other out, career-wise. I’ve always liked those two working together.
- I’m still liking that we see both how Don and Megan’s marriage works and how much Megan has set certain lines in the sand that Don’s not allowed to cross. The one here is subtle: She makes him call to get out of the party, knowing that Trudy will see right through that ruse. Betty totally would have called for him.
- The show has always had trouble doing Ken Cosgrove stories, and that’s probably because he’s so… normal. Outside of the fact that his wife has superpowers. That said, I really like him, and I really like Larisa Oleynik, so I hope that the two of them get much more to do this season. (Roger reprimanding Ken was totally ridiculous, and so obviously driven by Roger’s own failed writerly dreams, no?)
- Next week on Mad Men: Some people shake hands!